Charging into the graveyard of empires

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By Akbar Ahmed

Despite President Trump’s unveiling of his Afghanistan strategy on August 21, which involves committing several thousand additional American troops, the reality is that the war in Afghanistan, the longest in US history, is effectively over.
A victory at this stage for America would mean simply maintaining an American presence in the region, as a military victory is now virtually impossible. Yet even this will be increasingly difficult given the uncertain relations between the US and other prime nations with a stake in Afghanistan – Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran, and China.
Several US presidents have recognised both the importance and the volatility of South Asia. President Bill Clinton during his presidency called South Asia “the most dangerous place on earth,” and President Barack Obama described the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as “the most dangerous place in the world.”
Recognising the challenges in dealing with the region, US presidents in recent decades have traditionally approached South Asia by establishing alliances across the region – namely, with Kabul, Delhi, and Islamabad – that promoted regional dialogue and harmony.

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is distinguished adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary.

Whenever a president would visit India, for example, he would balance it with a visit to Pakistan, as President George W. Bush did in 2006. Demonstrating his own awareness of the importance of such a regional approach, President Obama saw Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of a unitary “Af-Pak” region. Washington has thus long sought to create a role for itself in the region as a kind of friendly umpire. A key motivation for this attitude developed when both India and Pakistan became nuclear weapon powers and, from time to time, looked as if they might be contemplating an exchange of such weapons. President Trump, however, has upended all of this. In particular, his response to Pakistan has been irritable and changeable. It began with a friendly call to Pakistan’s prime minister when Trump was president-elect. Trump called Pakistan “amazing” and “fantastic,” and said he wanted to find a solution to outstanding problems such as Kashmir. Now, however, as President he has reprimanded Pakistan for harbouring “agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” As if to rub salt into the already- smarting wounds of Pakistan, Trump did not have time to meet the Pakistan prime minister formally at the United Nations in September while meeting the Afghan president.
Pakistanis, for their part, have continually pointed out that they have lost some 60,000 people to terrorist attacks after becoming allies of the US in the so-called war on terror. The economy and politics of Pakistan have been profoundly affected by this seemingly endless war. Pakistani anger and frustration can be easily understood by anyone with the least empathy. It is a critical component of sound foreign and security policy that world leaders, including those in Washington, not lose sight of the fact that every state must project a foreign policy conforming with its own interests. Trump and his foreign policy advisers must understand that when Trump openly suggested in his speech that India should play a role in Afghanistan, Pakistan was only alienated further, as Pakistan has a paranoia about being encircled militarily by India. This fear also plays into how the other powers in the region respond both to the US and Pakistan. Let’s take China as a prime example. For the Chinese, Trump’s threats to their country over North Korea affect how Beijing behaves towards the US in South and Central Asia. Tellingly, the Chinese, who have pursued a number of economic projects in Pakistan over the past several years, immediately defended that country and effectively reprimanded the US, the day after Trump’s provocative speech claiming that Pakistan was guilty of harboring terrorists.
If the US strategy is to bring peace to Afghanistan, the Trump administration is set on doing the opposite. It is encouraging further unrest and drawing India and Pakistan into heightened conflict, with daily confrontations between the two nuclear-armed nations at the India-Pakistan border once again becoming far too common.
If Trump hopes to get out of the quagmire the US has created in Afghanistan, he needs to begin to understand the importance of foreign policy to any American presidency. He needs foreign policy advisers who are capable of seeing the region in a larger, broader context of US interests. He also must recognise that while he sorts out his administration’s internal affairs, the powers of the region – India, China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran – are all fishing in the troubled waters of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires” for a reason. War there is deceptive. An invading country might think it has won in this fraught theatre when it has actually lost. This realisation may not come until it is far too late. Today, the majority of the country has sided with the Taliban and the US is all but irrelevant to the big picture. This is a tribal war, and the Afghan tribes are not going to stop fighting, as by definition, tribal leaders and their followers will not allow an occupation of their lands. It is a question of the tribal code of honour and they will continue to fight no matter what the cost.
In order to preserve US interests in Afghanistan – which might include a reduced but long-term US military presence in accordance with a mutually agreed Status of Forces Agreement – the US needs to maintain also a strong diplomatic presence centered in its Kabul embassy, fund educational and development projects, and use its influence to increase the sense of legitimacy all Afghans feel about the government in Kabul. Moreover, the US should be striving across the region to promote its core values – democracy, human rights, and civil liberties. We believe the vision of America’s Founding Fathers has great relevance and is the strongest representation of America not only at home, but also abroad. America must therefore adopt a compassionate, intelligent, and wise diplomacy and carry this vision from Kabul to Calcutta.